How You’re Being Manipulated By Software

(And what you can do about it)

The Book of Life (1898)

There’s a term we use in software design called the happy path. It describes a best-case scenario, in which customers use a product exactly as intended, without bumping into any edge cases or uncommon problems. This includes the interface you see when you sign up, setup steps you have to complete, and so on.

For software designers, a happy path is also an extremely powerful psychological tool that allows us to control people’s behavior and direct them to do whatever we want.

If that sounds surprising—and slightly terrifying—think about how many times you’ve blown past a lengthy software license agreement and clicked the Agree button without looking.

Were you thinking deeply about what you were doing?

Probably not. And you’re not alone! Research shows that humans have a natural aversion to decision making. As Smashing Magazine describes it, people simply don’t like to make choices unless they have to:

Making an explicit decision requires effort, after all. Time, thought and consideration are often required to determine the best choice. It turns out that people are remarkably sensitive (and averse) to the amount of effort that making a choice demands.

And therein lies the trouble.


If you pay close attention, you’ll notice something else about software happy paths. Like a tell in a poker game, they subtly reveal a company’s underlying motives.

Since designers know you’ll probably avoid making difficult decisions, they take advantage of your passivity and coax you into doing anything they want.

For example, if you’ve ever installed the Facebook Messenger app, you were likely encouraged to continuously upload all of your phone’s contacts to the service. This is framed as a way to help you text people quickly.

Look at that screen for a moment. There’s no opt out button! You can only choose OK or Learn More.

And who wants to Learn More when they’re signing up for a chat app? Almost nobody.

I’m guessing at least 80% of Facebook’s users just tap OK and move along immediately. There’s even a little animated arrow encouraging you to tap OK, in case you momentarily considered doing something else.

But let’s say you’re among the 20% that happens to pick the Learn More button. You’ll get a cutesy second screen:

This screen finally has an opt-out button, in plain text, buried underneath some repetitive copywriting that vaguely implies you’re wrong for questioning any of this.


What’s more, Facebook’s designers neglected to mention a rather important detail: continuously uploading your contacts helps them collect a ton of data about people who aren’t even on Facebook.

Tapping that OK button is a trivially small decision. It takes just one minuscule tap of your finger. It’s done in less than a second.

But the impact is quite large indeed! You’re implicitly agreeing to send Facebook little bits of info about everyone you know. Now imagine the network effects when you multiply that by the millions or billions of users who also tapped OK in the blink of an eye.

This little happy path is feeding a massive data beast, which probably has details about almost everyone on Earth. And Facebook had ample space — two separate screens! — in which to mention anything about this.

So why didn’t they?

Because endless growth and data collection is the foundation of their business, and that necessitates doing gross invasive things to their users.

They need you to feed the beast, and they certainly don’t want you to think about it. So they use cartoon animals and sneaky happy paths to make sure you stay blissfully ignorant.


Now, of course happy path design also happens at companies that don’t have any nefarious hidden intentions.

When you sign up for Basecamp, we don’t trick you, coax you, or collect any more information than we need to get your account working properly.

However, we’re also a for-profit software company, and business performance is one of our considerations when we design our interfaces. When you sign up for Basecamp, we encourage you to take actions that give you the best chance of having success, and (hopefully) becoming a paying customer.

The difference is, our approach is fully above board. If you have success with Basecamp, your life gets a little easier, and we earn a new paying customer. We promise to support you and protect your data. You pay us for that. Cool for everybody.


Using software is inherently a handshake agreement between you and the service provider. It’s not unlike paying for a physical service.

The problem is, many of the dominant software makers are abusing your handshake in increasingly dastardly ways. They treat their customers like sitting ducks — just a bunch of dumb animals waiting to be harvested. And when growth slows, they resort to deceptive and creepy tactics to keep the trend lines pointing skyward.

So what can we do, as consumers?

First, keep your eye out for sneaky manipulation, especially when you’re first signing up for a service. If you’re asked to share personal information or forced to commit to something that makes you feel uncomfortable, you’re probably being used.

Second, slow down and thoroughly consider the choices you’re making. You’ll end up discovering weird, surprising things about services that you thought were harmless.

Third, be wary of any “free” software platforms. Sure, you’re not giving those companies any money directly. Instead, you’re giving them something else they’ll use to get money — your attention, your time, your personal information—all things that are arguably more valuable than money.

And finally, pay for software! When you pay real money to software creators, you’re supporting them, and they’ll support you in return.

More and more independent software makers are standing up and defending users against data misuse and manipulation. Recently, Feedbin significantly altered their tech to protect their users from being tracked by the likes of Facebook or Twitter. That’s a great example, and there are many others like it.

Vote with your wallet, and support the people who really do have your back.

Introducing Boosts: an all-new way to show your support in Basecamp

We gave up on Likes and invented a totally new form of tiny communication.

If there’s one thing you can’t avoid on the Internet, it’s Likes. They’re in nearly every software platform where people post photos or write text messages.


Sometimes Likes are called Faves, Hearts, Reactions, Claps, or something else, but the basic idea is the same: they’re a small, quick way to express your feelings about something, usually accompanied by a count of other people who had that same feeling.

Until today, we had exactly this sort of feature in Basecamp 3. We called it Applause. If you liked a post, you’d clap for it. Everyone who clapped was shown in a row.

Basecamp’s applause feature.

This was fine, of course—it worked just like all the other Likes.

But a couple months ago, we started thinking more deeply about this pattern, and we noticed it has a lot of insidious problems.

  1. Likes are vague, especially in a professional setting. Let’s say your boss liked someone else’s post, and not yours. You might start questioning what happened. Was she just busy and not paying full attention to everything? Or did she do that intentionally? What does it all mean!? There’s no way to know, because there’s not enough information — just a bunch of digital grunting.
  2. Likes are obligatory. How many times have you felt obligated to SMASH THE LIKE BUTTON because you didn’t want to seem like a jerk, or because everyone else was liking something? There’s a subtle peer pressure and herd mentality hiding behind those thumbs up.
  3. Likes are vanity metrics. Whenever you post something to a social network, do you obsessively check to see how it was received? That’s because those little Like counts are a drug for your brain: you get a dopamine rush by observing your own mini-popularity contest. It’s a psychological trick to keep you coming back for more.
  4. Likes are thoughtless. Has there ever been a more mindless form of communication than merely tapping a button? Liking something requires almost no effort or consideration whatsoever. Here’s what you’re really saying: “Thank you for spending your precious time posting this. In return, I have clicked a button. It took me less than one second. Bye.”
  5. Likes are canned. In most apps you have to pick from a predefined set of acceptable symbols (or in Basecamp’s case, just clapping.) That’s not great for addressing the infinite range of nuanced human emotions, and it’s also totally impersonal. Why should some software company decide which 3 emotions you’re allowed to have?

Now, it’s not all bad. There are some good things about Likes too:

  1. Sharing support for others is wonderful. We want to encourage that, of course!
  2. It’s nice to respond to something without making a fuss. You might not have much to say, but you still want to let someone know you appreciated their ideas. Notifying a bunch of other people on a thread merely to say “good job!” is overkill.
  3. It’s helpful to know that people saw your posts. When you see that 10 people liked your post, you’ll know they received it and thought about it (at least a little.)

With all of these ideas in mind, we went back to the drawing board and came up with a fresh new approach that’s never been done before. We’re calling it Boosts, and it’s way better than all of those crummy digital grunts.

Here’s how you boost something in Basecamp.

In various places in Basecamp, you’ll see a new rocket icon:

Boost button!

Click that, and it’ll morph into a small text field.

A field in which to boost

You’ll notice there are no predetermined options or smiley face buttons to choose from. That’s on purpose. You have to make it up yourself!

Add some emoji or write a tiny text note, up to 16 characters max. Then click the green check mark to save your boost (or the red X to cancel.)

You can add more than one boost if you want, and they’ll collect into a little bundle like so:

Boosting twice

Your boosts won’t notify anyone other than the original poster. So if you’re on a comment thread with 10 other people and you boost Dave, only Dave will get a notification about it. This is in contrast to comments, which send a notification to everyone on the thread. So if you just want to say “Great job!” or “I agree” or “👍”, but you don’t want to bug everyone with a notification, boosts are best!

If you messed up making a boost, click on it and a trash icon will appear. Click the trash to delete it. (If you’re an admin, you can delete anyone’s boosts in the same way.)

Deleting a boost

After a lot of people have boosted someone, you’ll see a sweet block of small supportive comments, where everyone’s message is totally unique! There are no vanity counts or anything like that.

Here’s how it looked when I announced that we’d be launching Boosts:

A block o’ boosts

Other times, boosts work like a silly mini-conversation.

lol juice boosts

When you’ve received some boosts, you’ll get notified about them every 3 hours as long as there’s something new to report—otherwise Basecamp won’t notify you.


Why every 3 hours? We think it’s the perfect amount of time: infrequent enough that you won’t be bombarded about little responses, but frequent enough that you won’t miss anything for too long.

When you click on that notification, you’ll see all your boosts, ordered by date:


You can also unsubscribe from the boosts notifications, if you prefer. Just hit the button in the top-right corner of the page above.


What happened to applause?

Applause is no more (it’s been replaced by Boosts.) But old posts that had applause will still show it—those claps have simply been turned into boosts instead.

Clap Boosts.

So that’s Boosts — we hope you like them! (Pun intended)

We’ve been using boosts for over a month, and we’ve found them to be a much richer form of communication than our primitive old applause system. They’re far more contextual, freeform, and creative: perfect for posting short, thoughtful responses.

After a few days, you’ll notice you won’t feel obligated to boost something unless you genuinely have something to say. Boosts are far less susceptible to vague interpretations, since every little boost is unique to the conversation at hand. And with no buttons to smash, there’s no more mindless button smashing!

Give boosts a try and let us know what you think. We’d love to hear from you on Twitter or in the comments on this post.

🚀🚀🚀


New to Basecamp and want to see what it’s all about? Sign up for a 30 day free trial over yonder.

Lazy creative


James Van Der Beek stars in an episode of Room 104 on HBO. The series is in the middle of its first season, but it’s already done so well that HBO’s renewed it for a second season.

It’s a curious show, as it takes place in a single hotel room every episode. The same hotel room over and over and over again. The room itself is also extremely uninteresting. When the design team went to Mark Duplass, the creator of the show, with tons of ideas on what the room should look like, Mark shot them all down.

No, I want the room to be as bland as possible.

So how did Mark Duplass create such an interesting and succesful show with this limited pallette?


Our brains are lazy. Well, that’s not exactly fair. Our brains are great at conserving energy.

They’ve evolved to reserve the juice necessary to deal with things in our environment that are novel and potentially life altering. Hence why we tend to enjoy and remember the details of a new place we visit, but repeat visits become boring. It starts to blend together into a pattern. Unless something upsets that pattern.

It’s how we come up with ideas too. Thomas Ward, a psychology professor at the University of Alabama, gave the model for which we come up with new ideas a name: we follow the path-of-least-resistance. When we generate new ideas, we often start with things, categories, and examples of what we already know because it’s easier.

Page Moreau, Professor of Marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business, however, wanted to know if we could get off that lazy path and become more creative.

In one of her studies, she had participants design a children’s toy given a palette of 20 possible objects. The twist was one group of participants could choose 5 of those objects themselves, and the other group had to use 5 objects picked for them.

The group who had the constraint of objects picked for them, were slightly more creative than the people who got to pick themselves.

The groups were then given yet another constraint. Some of the participants were allowed to use as many of the 5 objects they wanted, but other participants were told they had to use all 5.

Now, here’s where it got interesting. The folks who had their objects picked for them AND had to use all 5 of them, were the most creative of all the participants in the study by a lot.

In other words, the more constraints they were given, the more creative they got. The constraints knocked them off of their lazy path to less creative and familiar solutions.


I’m having a hard time finding a television show that can keep my interest. Too many all just seem the same. A group of friends in their apartments. Superheroes battling another mega boss.

Yesterday I tuned out of a show when the conflict of the scene was the Arbitrary Skepticism trope. “Hero is skeptical of problem and wants to leave. Needs convincing by the other characters.” I was sick of that when Scully from X-files created that conflict dozens and dozens of times during their run.

But Room 104 has captured a lot of attention. Why? It’s constraints. The fact that the whole show is constrained to this one bland room helps get the show’s staff off of their path-of-least-resistance.

And that’s not the only constraint. James Van Der Beek was only in a single episode because in every episode the room stays the same, but everything else changes. New cast. New era. Even a new genre. One episode is horror, another comedy, another heartfelt drama. I can’t even tell you what genre James show was, as it changes wildly during the episode 🙂

Mark Duplass, whether he realized it or not, tapped into what Page Moreau discovered. By adding these extra constraints to his show, he forced everyone to get off their lazy creative paths to finally create something interesting and original.

So, next time you find yourself struggling against your lack of options. Next time you find yourself wanting to utter something like “I’m stuck with these crappy tools”. Just remember that more choice is actually a formula for boring and already done. Embrace your limited choices. Force yourself into more constraints. And you just might knock yourself off your own path of lazy thinking and create something that stands out.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life.

And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups you should try Highrise.


Assumptions


In 1952, the Boston Symphony Orchestra put up a screen during musician auditions to make them “blind”. They had been hiring more men than women and were trying to figure out if they were biased in their hiring. Still, the audition results skewed towards men. Why?


There’s a bar my wife and I like to visit near San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf called The Buena Vista. They serve a delicious Irish Coffee. Even more memorable is Larry Nolan one of their frequent bartenders. If you go there during the week, sit at the bar. You might get a special chance to see Larry perform magic while you enjoy your coffee.

A few weeks ago my wife, three year old, and I travelled to the Bay Area. My sister-in-law just had surgery and we went to help with chores and recovery. Things like driving the kids to school, taking her to appointments, etc. We spent a lot of time visiting their neighborhood and local spots, so didn’t even make it into San Francisco to visit our favorite bar.

So it was a nice surprise to see a Buena Vista at the airport on our way back home. It wasn’t the same atmosphere of course, but at least we could get a tiny taste of our favorite San Francisco-esque thing.

When our waitress came by though, she looked grumpy we were there. Immediately I thought she wouldn’t be a very good waitress. We asked if they had chocolate milk, our 3 year olds favorite drink. She answered curtly with a flat, “No.” She wasn’t any friendlier while we placed the rest of the order. Great. Not only we do we not get to see Larry, but this waitress is terrible.

Minutes later the waitress came back with our Irish Coffees. But she had another drink. A giant bottle of Chocolate Milk. She said she went next door to the adjacent store because she remembered they sold chocolate milk.

What an incredible move. Blew me away. Very few people would go to that length to make their customers happy. My daughter was thrilled.

Maybe our waitress was just having a bad day. Or maybe that’s just how she is — not a lot of smiles or cheery conversation. But I took all those reads and turned them into an assumption that she was a poor waitress and didn’t care about serving us.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.


Of course men aren’t better musicians than women. So what was going on at these auditions?

The Boston Symphony Orchestra kept exploring how to make their auditions more blind. They asked musicians to take off their shoes before walking across the stage to their audition spot.

Bingo. The sound of the musicians shoes were giving away their gender. Audition results went to almost 50/50 men/women.


I had a chance to catch up with a friend of mine last week, Kurt Mackey. Today he runs Fly.io. At his previous company he instituted blind interviews. The system allowed for interview screening questions that involved code, but hid details about who the interviewees were. And the results were fantastic.

But it’s not just hiring. Bias and poor assumptions creep into everything we do. Look how wrong I was about something as trivial as ordering food at a restaurant. The whole experience humbled me in my ability to read people and showed me how poor some of my knee jerk assumptions are. It’s a huge reminder how much work we need to do to rid ourselves of biases.

I left that waitress a big tip.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: here, where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. Also if you’ve enjoyed this article, please help it spread by clicking the below.

And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups you should try Highrise.


Feel like a loser?

My daughter sucks at drawing.


It’s not her fault. She’s two. But you can tell she’s getting frustrated her skill doesn’t match what she wants to accomplish. Yesterday, she wanted me to color alongside her. She ordered me to color inside the lines. She wanted to see how it was done, and then wasn’t happy when she tried to imitate me.


Robert M. Sapolsky a professor in neurological sciences at Stanford University wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal about the “Winner Effect” (paywall). Whether you look at fish or humans, research keeps finding the same thing. When you win, you win more. When you lose, you lose more.

Losers don’t just lose more, they don’t even bother to come back to compete again.

Winners on the other hand, even if their win was faked (their opponent lost on purpose), gain the confidence to keep competing. For example a mouse who wins a fixed fight where the other mouse was sedated (i.e. forced to lose), has greater odds now of winning his next fight.

Robert brings up the unfortunate side effect this has. Acts of aggression against the weak become a coping mechanism.

But is there some upside we can find in this? Is there a way to hack the “winner effect” for our gain?


In 1985, Melissa and Doug Bernstein were planning on making their careers on Wall Street and Madison Avenue. But after a few years of feeling miserable in the jobs they had after college, they quit and created their own toy company: Melissa & Doug.

If you’re a parent in the US, the odds are pretty good you have a Melissa and Doug branded toy at home. They are an incredibly successful seller of toys.

We have multiple Melissa and Doug products in our household. One of our current favorites is the Water Wow.


The Water Wow has white pages with illustrations outlined in black, beckoning to be colored in.


But it comes with just a single “marker” which contains no ink. Instead, you fill it with water. When you draw, the water soaks through the white pages, showing the colored background hiding just underneath.


When it dries, the page goes back to white.

In other words, it’s like a coloring book. But it’s fake.

It doesn’t take any creativity. You just brush water on it, and out come the beautiful illustrations. My daughter loves it.

And so there lies one example of hacking the “winner effect”. The Water Wow gives my two year old daughter the experience of drawing. Of painting. Of creating something that her two year old hands and muscles can’t actually do just yet. Instead of settling for loss after loss as she tries to learn to color, Melissa and Doug’s toy gives her a tiny win, building her confidence to keep struggling with the real thing. Even if it’s just a little bit fake.


We aren’t two. But learning how to succeed at a new skill, running a business for the first time, or even learning a new software program all puts us back in my daughter’s shoes. (Trying to teach myself video editing feels a lot like failing to color inside the lines.)

For product and business design, I think it’s important to recognize all the areas where our customers feel like that. Can we give them an experience like the Water Wow right now? Can we fake a piece so it feels at least like a little win?

At Highrise for example, we’ve been sending a series of onboarding emails like a lot of companies do. Welcome -> Here’s how you do this important thing -> Did you see this other important thing -> etc.

But we’ve changed that Welcome email recently to ask right up front: “Do you need to import a file of contacts? Most of our customers do. If you want, just reply and send the file our way and we’ll help.”

From all the customer support we do, we’ve seen importing contacts from another system can often be a deep struggle for our new users. So why not try to make it feel like it’s easy as magic? Send us the file. We’ll help or even do it for you. We have more experience after all. We can most likely figure out that customer file; we’ve seen enough of them.

It’s important to remember from a personal and team perspective too. I’ve been running businesses now for over 12 years. It can be really stressful. The startups where no one cares about you yet. The setbacks. The turnarounds.

Highrise was bleeding customers when we took it over 2.5 years ago — everyone thought they heard a rumor it was shutting down. So it was important to celebrate our small wins. One thing we did was add Buzz and Signup channels to our Slack team chat. Most tweets about us are wins so instead of keeping those closed off to just a few of us, everyone sees the nice things people say each day. The Signup channel just shows a running series of new accounts as they’re created so now everyone can see when someone new just “walked in our door” and is trying out our stuff.

Those channels helped showcase our little wins, giving us small but important boosts of confidence, even when other things weren’t going all that well.


How have you tried hacking the “winner effect” in your own life or for your customers?

P.S. If you enjoyed this article, please help spread it by clicking that below. And if you are interested in more, you should follow my YouTube channel, where I share more about how history, psychology, and science can help us come up with better ideas and start businesses.


Looking for a distraction… or optimism?


A friend of mine was recently bummed about the lack of success a business venture turned out to be. So he started looking for a hobby… a distraction… something.


I have a hiring secret I haven’t shared before. I like to hire people handy with a camera.

Javan, who works here at our sister company Basecamp, is a tremendous developer. He used to actually work for me at my old company Inkling. I don’t think I’ve ever told him about this, but the thing about him that really sealed the deal on us hiring him at Inkling originally was that he had a great looking photo portfolio. He practiced taking beautiful photographs. He even made his own minimal photo software.

There’s something about folks who work with cameras and photography who I find are constantly on alert for interesting opportunities in the world. They take what others see as mundane, and they find something else. Something unique and beautiful to share with the rest of the world.

That’s a habit I enjoy having around me. Especially because it makes me aspire to do the same.


I’m clearly not a psychologist. And I’m not offering advice on turning something like depression around which really needs qualified, professional assistance. Believe me, I have my own tough time managing my psychology.

But there’s something so optimistic and uplifting about working with a camera and looking for the interesting things out there from a haystack of seemingly boring, routine tasks.

I’ve been doing a semi-regular vlog now on YouTube, and I keep noticing: there’s always something interesting.

Sometimes it’s harder to spot than others. But as I look back at the video I’ve captured each and every day, there’s always something. Even if it’s small and short.

More often though, there’s so much that was interesting and beautiful I have a hard time fitting it all into a single concise movie.

So on January 1, 2017, I announced I’d be trying my hand at a daily vlog — well on January 2 to be exact. I film on one day, publish the next 🙂

There’s a lot of reasons I’m not optimistic it will succeed. And when I say succeed I’m not referring to getting the followers or views I want.

I’m not optimistic because I’m not sure I can keep up with the demands a daily vlog could take. I have found myself spending hours and hours just editing a 7 minute video. I can’t keep doing that and fit in the rest of my life. Can I figure out ways to speed up the process? Will experience just make me faster?

I think so. Maybe. I’ve already shaved off a ton of time with some recent changes I’ve made.

But also I think this vlog could fail because my life is mundane. I don’t travel much, or hang out with famous friends. I like to stick close to home, spend as much time with my family as possible, and work the rest.

And that’s why I need to vlog even more frequently than I have so far. Because it is interesting. There’s always something. At least one creative challenge or business problem each day running Highrise. Not to mention the endless lessons I uncover trying to raise a child.

So with that, I start a daily vlog.

Please come and follow the journey. I hope it provides some help in areas important to you.

And please, if you ever have a question I’d love to help, just ask. I’m reachable over YouTube comments, Twitter, and email.


My friend looking for that hobby? He bought a new camera.

The Curse of Knowledge


“Uh, it’s off Airport Road. You should be able to get there from Umstead. I think or, or maybe go up to Estes?”

I paused again. I was confusing the person asking me for directions more than I was confusing myself.

What was the matter with me?

I grew up in Chapel Hill and went to college there. I lived there for over a decade. I was a local.

And when a stranger asked me for directions, I couldn’t tell them.

I stammered over and over, and told them they might need to ask someone else or look at their phone.

Was something wrong with me?


One of the most rewarding, and challenging, things about working at Highrise is how fast the product changes.

Our team runs on a train schedule. This means every few weeks we announce an improvement or something new.

It could be a big feature like recurring tasks, or something small like a new rule for auto-forwarding emails.

The reward is we’re making the product more useful to ourselves because we use Highrise every day, and making it more handy to customers.

A big challenge is documenting these changes. It’s informing people that use Highrise with what has changed, why it changed, and how to make use of the changes.

The number one resource for this is our help site. It’s a living, breathing how-to guide or user manual.

It’s a beast of a resource to maintain. There are over 100 articles, countless screenshots, and videos.

And with frequent updates, this snapshot or how-to guide of Highrise can go out of date fast.

It came to our team’s realization when updating a screenshot. The settings menu now has a new option for all users (Referrals), and the old screenshot didn’t reflect that.

It was a tiny change. A person new to Highrise might not even notice it. Our team did, so we updated the screenshot.

This change sparked lots of others too. We began to notice videos were out of date by months. More screenshots too.

A pull request with one commit, a change to a screenshot, turned into a two-week project. 277 changes later, our team updated the entire help site to more accurately reflect the product.

What took us so long to realize things were out of date?


Nicholas Epley has a dynamite book on this topic. It’s called Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want.

In the book, there is an eye-opening exercise.

FINISHED FILES ARE THE RESULT OF YEARS OF SCIENTIFIC STUDY COMBINED WITH THE EXPERIENCE OF YEARS.

Epley asks you to count how many fs are in this sentence. Start counting.

How many fs do you count?

Is it more than you can count on one hand?

If not, Epley has confirmed you’re a terrific reader, but a terrible counter.

Now count them again? Did you find all six fs?

Don’t forget that the word of has an f in it. See all six now?

Most people, including myself, only found three fs.

Why is that?

Epley explains it has everything to do with knowledge.

He continues, “Your expertise of English blinds you from seeing some letters. You know how to read so well that you can hear the sounds of some letters as you read over them.”

So, because of your expertise, every time you see the word of, you hear a v rather than a f, and you miss it.

Epley points out, “First graders are more likely to find all six in this task than fifth graders, and young children are likely to do better than this than you did as well.”

This is known as the curse of knowledge. Why is knowledge a curse?

Because once you have it, you can’t imagine what it’s not like to possess it.

Knowledge or a level of expertise gives you the lens of a microscope.

It means you notice subtle details a novice might not catch, and it also means your focus is so sharp, you might miss the big picture and you’ll struggle to understand a novice’s perspective.

Epley offers a slew of good examples in the book and elsewhere too.

One of my favorites is how Clorox bought Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing and spent a decade trying to make the original recipe so that it did not need to be refrigerated. All of their internal taste tests of the dressing came back as worse than the original. Or so they thought.

Hidden Valley finally sent a worse tasting version of the dressing to the market, and people loved it. Because not many people ever tasted the original dressing. The consumer’s perspective was way different than the company’s perspective.

Epley writes further, “The expert’s problem is assuming that what’s so clear in his or her own mind is more obvious to others.”


This is something our own team fell into at Highrise. We were spotting tiny changes like typos or a missing menu option in a screenshot, but missing the bigger picture that almost everything was out of date.

Our perspective was way different than someone who started using the product yesterday.

And it’s what happened to me when trying to give directions. I could probably get the stranger to the location if we rode in the same car.

I could tell her Airport Road is now named Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. And there used to be tons of trees on Umstead Road that the city cutdown. I could point out all these tiny details.

But I couldn’t tell her how to get there on her own.

There was nothing wrong with me. I was cursed.

Cursed by knowledge.


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Schadenfreude

Biebs’ mugshot in 2014

Justin Bieber can’t catch a break.

Over the years he’s been involved in quite a few questionable acts, like recklessly speeding his Lamborghini around a neighborhood full of kids, or spitting on fans from a balcony. He’s in the middle of trying to make a comeback with his “I’m Sorry” tour. The tour is actually called Purpose, but one of the flagship songs is “Sorry.” It’s an apology, but not to just an ex-girlfriend like Selena Gomez, but to all his fans.

Well, last week, a video captioned: “Justin Bieber threw a fan’s gift out the window” went viral.

There was a collective: Tisk tisk.


Last summer, I was in a bad state. My arms, feet, and face were covered in a rash. I itched everywhere. At first I thought it was some kind of allergic reaction that would go away, but it just kept getting worse.

It got to the point where I needed to see a doctor. It wasn’t an “I’m dying” kind of emergency, but it seemed like something I should get checked out soon, and often I need to make an appointment with my primary care physician a month out. What kind of care covers that gap? Urgent Care. There’s a crop of new Urgent Care clinics popping up all over Chicago, so I thought I’d check one out to see what they had to say.

I showed up at a nearby clinic and met with a doctor. Before I had even finished explaining what was wrong, in less than 30 seconds, she concluded I had a skin parasite, one of the worst cases she’s ever seen.

She asked if I’d been to any third world countries or had sex with anyone with similar symptoms. Uh, no, and WTF!?

This didn’t sound like something I had, and I told the doctor so. But she was adamant.

The prescribed treatment was crazy — multiple coatings of my body in a harsh chemical. My wife and our 1 year old child would also have to go through all this. We’d have to steam or throw out any bedding, sheets, couches, clothes, yada, yada. Off they sent me back into the world with my prescription and a good luck.

I started crying on my way back home. How could this have happened?

I realized I better get a second opinion before bringing my family through this hell. It wasn’t easy getting a same day appointment with a dermatologist, but I finally tracked one down whom I drove a couple hours to go see.

After looking me over, “Oh wow, we’ll get you fixed up right away. You have a contact allergy. See your feet, that’s where it started. You’re allergic to something your feet have been in contact with. Looks like you’re allergic to something in or on your sandals or shoes given the pattern the rash has on your feet.”

(The Urgent Care doctor hadn’t even looked at my feet, even when I told her they were the worst part of my problem.)

And just like that, I walked out of that office with prescriptions for antihistamines and some steroidal creams. 24 hours later I was already mostly better. 72 hours, and I was 100% again and relieved. I can’t believe how much agony I just avoided.

But I was also now really curious, how could the Urgent Care doctor have been so wrong?


From 1970 to 1998, a group called the Red Army Faction, or Baader-Meinhof Gang, was an active terrorist organization in West Germany. They did what you’d expect of a terrorist organization: murders, bombings, kidnappings, etc. But it’s still a pretty obscure group.

In 1986, a reader of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Terry Mullen, first learned about the Baader-Meinhof Gang. And then again that named popped up in quick succession in some random reading he was doing.

That’s an odd coincidence Terry thought. You hear about something, and then it seems like you keep hearing about it. For example as I write this I keep seeing the word “Schadenfreude” everywhere. It’s in the Wall Street Journal today. It’s in a random article I just saw as I researched this.

Terry gave it the name the “Baader-Meinhof phenomenon”. It’s also known as a “Frequency illusion”. When we are recently exposed to something that gets our attention, now we see it frequently.

Why? In the Invisible Gorilla experiment I’ve written about recently, most participants miss that a person in a gorilla suit slowly crosses their field of vision. They are too engrossed in even a simple task to see it.

But once you know of the gorilla experiment, it’s impossible to miss the gorilla. Our brains love to pattern match. They observe the things we’re looking for.

The funny thing about the gorilla experiment is that even though we become good about finding the gorilla, we miss all the other things that unexpectedly happen in our field of vision during that same experiment, like when a player randomly leaves the game, or when the scene changes colors. All before our eyes, but it’s missed.

Schadenfreude isn’t being said or mentioned any more today than it is any other time. But now it’s a gorilla to me. It caught my eye, and now it’s on my mind, so I can’t help spotting it over and over. But think about all the other interesting things I’ve missed today because my mind is stuck on something else.


Going back to my allergic reaction. I asked the dermatologist how could the urgent care doctor have missed this. The dermatologist had a simple answer, “They’re urgent care doctors. Most people who go to them have the same things. That’s what they expect to see, so that’s what they see. They miss a lot of the other things.”

It’s a great reminder about how much we miss in our lives because we’re stuck looking for something else. Are you feeling particularly self-loathing? It’s too often a self-fulfilling prophecy. As you roll around the ways you’re not succeeding in your mind, you miss the opportunities right in front of you.


I want you to watch that Justin Bieber video again, please. But this time turn the sound up. Listen carefully. Watch Justin talk.

Justin says, “Why’d you throw it at me.”

The fan just threw that “gift” at Justin’s face. I’m pretty sure most of us might have a reaction like that if someone threw something at our face.

Schadenfreude. It means:

Pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.

Imagine what opportunities you’re missing as you spend time trying to catch others messing up theirs.

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